Friday, July 26, 2019

The Second Dimension of Learning Goals for Sales Training Initiatives

In my last post, I suggested using Bloom’s Taxonomy with 6 levels of learner’s sophistication to define Learning Goals.  I also mentioned that formulating Learning Goals at sophistication levels three (apply) and higher is necessary but not sufficient for Sales Training Initiatives having a sustainable impact on sellers’ performance.

The Scale of Learners' Proficiency
The second dimension, to be considered, is the scale of learners’ proficiency from Gloria J. Gary (Gary 1991).  There are six levels of skill outcomes where Familiarization is the lowest level, followed by Comprehension, Conscious Effort, Conscious Action, Proficiency and Unconscious Competence as the highest level. I consider that the first two levels of the proficiency scale are passive and will not lead to actions. The level of Unconscious Competence is not a level to strive for if we want sellers to remain reflective about their actions and to continue learning. Very often, you find sellers who are not able to articulate what makes them successful (unconscious competent). For a transformational initiative to be successful, they must first accept the conscious incompetent status before they can attain a new desired conscious competent state (proficiency).

A combined view on Learners’ Sophistication and Proficiency
I found Julie Dirksen’s (Dirksen 2016) approach, to position Learning Goals in a space defined by the two axes (Level of Sophistication and Level of Proficiency), very pertinent for a holistic understanding of setting Learning Goals. However, as indicated above, I doubt that the complete space formed by the two scales in their entirety is exploitable for setting Learning Goals leading to Sales Training initiatives delivering sustainable results.

The exploitable space on the sophistication axis starts therefore at level 3 (apply). Sophistication levels for Learning Goals depend on the complexity of the task a learner is expected to perform to support the execution of business strategies. 

For sales tool training, level 3 is sufficient. However useful actions cannot be derived by simply using the tool. As the man said, “A fool with a tool remains a fool”.  Additional training initiatives (process and methodology) with higher sophistication levels up to Create are needed.

I have seen many CRM implementation failing because the initiation of the sellers to the system was via the tool training. For a successful CRM implementation, these higher-level goals have to be reached before the goal for tool training has any positive effect.

The exploitable level of the proficiency axis starts also with level 3 (conscious effort).  This is though also the highest level that can be attained by following a cognitive training event. Reaching higher proficiency levels can only be obtained and sustained through active, continuous involvement of managers in their coaching capacity.  However not all tasks need the full proficiency level. Striving for higher proficiency levels will however increase productivity.

For activities geared at preparation and planning, a seller can already reach an initially satisfactory performance at the conscious effort level although with limited productivity. The challenge for managers is to see to it that sellers start immediately after the training event to integrate into their daily work routine what they have learned. Which means, for a friction free adoption, the management practice must be adapted to the new Learning Goal at the latest at the end of the initial conscious training event. The re-enforcement does not come by refreshing what was taught. The only effective way is seeing to it in a supportive manner that the newly acquired skill is used. This is also the only way how sellers can experience that they can create more momentum in their deals by using that new skill.  This experience is the best motivator to continue using what was learned. Pablo Casals, the world-famous cellist, answered, when asked why he continued practicing at the age of 80,  “I feel to still making progress”.

For skills that are used in an interaction with synchronous presence of the customer and the buyer (e.g. face to face meeting, video or phone call), the full proficiency level is immediately required from the seller for such an interaction having a chance of being successful.  Gary’s model shows that this full proficiency can be reached in a training event with simulation. In the selling environment, simulations take the form of role plays.

For the full proficiency level to be sustained, managers should thus prepare sellers, in a continuous manner, by role plays in the cadence of about to occur customer interactions. Take a fire brigade as your role model.   Firemen and officers maintain full proficiency levels through spaced exercises practicing their skills in realistic simulations. Also remember the title of David H. Sandler’s Sales Classic “You Cannot Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar”.

The 2 lowest levels of the sophistication and proficiency axes are to be considered unexploitable for successful Sales Training initiatives. It is though not uncommon to find training initiatives in this space. Standard, off the shelf training events, organized with the intent to motivate the salesforce are prime candidates to fall into this space.  Such events are also recognizable that the success of the event is measured with smiley sheets or in the best case with multiple-choice tests. Multiple choice tests measure the capacity to memorize. Yet according to Elaine Biech (Biech 2017) “real learning is not memorization”. This confirms the conclusion of my article about on the relevance of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve

With the framework of the exploitable space for Learning Goals, I can now also explain my intuitive decision for allowing open books for exams in my graduate courses. In this manner, I test the students’ mastery of the required sophistication level with conscious efforts. Interestingly enough, some students prepare for the exam by making job aids to reach the proficiency level of Conscious Actions. This level provides for higher productivity and students at that level almost never complain that they were under time constraints for writing the exam.   

Sales Managers can use the framework of the exploitable Space for Learning Goals to:

  • ·        Test whether their ongoing approach to Sales Training contains Learning Goals in the exploitable space
  • ·        Negotiate Learning Goals with Training providers to get to sustainable impacts of training
  • ·        Adapt their management practices to contribute their non-negotiable part in the initiative needed for sustainable impacts of training 

Suitable Learning Goals are an important foundation for training initiative leading to sustainable improvement. However, their definitions alone are not sufficient for managers to assess whether the goals are reached and maintained. How to recognize this  will be the subject for my next post.

(Biech 2017) Biech E. The Art and Science of Training, atd Press 2017
(Dirksen 2016) Dirksen J. Design for How People Learn, (2nd edition) New Riders 2016
(Gery 1991) Gery G. J.  Electronic performance Support Systems Weingarten Publication 1991

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